Engage those Pokémon Go players at your doorstep
A few weeks ago - in the middle of the summer break we saw very unusual activity at the HTW Chur campus. Suddenly, young people were showing up on campus, being suspiciously engaged in some kind of activity involving their smart phones. Some could be our students, while others were clearly too young - but again it was summer break and ordinary students avoid us during that time of the year. Quickly, it became clear that these people were Pokémon Go players.
In a way, we were exited that this was happening, because Pokémon Go unites several of the topics in our curriculum. So we thought: “if these people are already here, why not engage them in some science communication/study promotion”. We have plenty of printed and online material that present what we are doing. On the other hand, this material seemed awkward for giving out to players because it is entirely unrelated the reason why these players visited us. Also we did not want to disturb our core community if we start flooding our communication channels with something they are not interested in or possibly dislike (our traditional community responds very sensible in unpredictable ways). So we were looking for something that allows engaging players while leaving our existing community unaffected.
Read on to find out what we did and what we learned.
Pokémon Go is a location-based treasure hunt, in which players have to “catch” phantasy creatures (the Pokémon), train them and compete against Pokémon of other players by fighting in arenas. Pokémon Go has three types of locations: the “randomly” appearing and disappearing Pokémon, poke stops that provide tools for catching, training and care taking of Pokémon, and arenas, in which players compete against each other. Poke stops and arenas are fixed locations and do not change. These fixed locations in the game are tied to landmarks in the real world.
So far, the only way for engaging players in Pokémon Go are “lure modules”. Lure modules can be attached to poke stops and for a limited time period these modules “lure” Pokémon to that stop so any player nearby can catch them. Since catching as many Pokémon as possible is a central element of the game, being near a poke stop with an attached lure module gives players an advantage to catch more Pokémon faster. Thus, lure modules provide a way for attracting players to a location.
All but our newest buildings have at least one poke stop or arena nearby (that is: within 5 to 30m from the main entrances) - great!
But wait! Our core business is not helping Pokémon Go players to catch more Pokémon, but to support their learning so they can have a successful professional career - for example in companies like Niantic. Niantic is the company behind Pokémon Go and at the time of this writing, they were recruiting staff profiles that match our study programs. This is good, so there is a not so far-fetched relation between the game and our study program.
For connecting players to our activities we wanted something better than just placing in-game activities for giving out virtual goodies that are unrelated to our activities.
So besides placing in-game activities, we started with a tiny web-page for Pokémon Go players. This web-page integrates a map, so players can easily relate to our campus sites. The lower part of the web-page has small teasers that create links between topics of our study programs and the game. This part of the page targets those players who are interested to learn about the underpinning concepts of Pokémon Go.
First, we had to collect the poke stops and arenas around the campus. Getting this data from the game was easy. We just needed to pinpoint the poke stop locations that we could “see” in the game.
Secondly, we created connections between the game and our study programs.
Finally, we used the web-page to announce when we will activate lure modules at one of our campus-based poke stops, because the players’ primary intention is the game and not to learn more about our study programs.
In order to bridge between the game and the study programs at HTW Chur we applied the metagaming concept. Metagaming stands for playful activities that are defined on top of the actual game without altering the game itself. Metagaming relies on the gaming concepts or a game’s story telling.
For Pokémon Go, we chose to connect to the “Augmented Reality” concept of what we called the “Campus Radar”. The idea of the Campus Radar is that players can use our web-page as a “radar display” to the other locations on campus and check what is happening there. As the primary game activity is catching Pokémon such radar should tell the players, which Pokémon are nearby our different campus sites.
The idea behind the radar is that two or more friends position themselves at different locations and track the nearby Pokémon. For single players, such “radar” is already build into the game app in the form of a “nearby Pokémon” list. This list shows the nine closest Pokémon in a radius of approx. 800m. Give our players are friends they allow each other to access their radar data, so they can increase the area in which they can detect the precious Pokémon. In the case of the Campus Radar the HTW Chur would act as the players’ group of friends that tracks the Pokémon at the different campus sites and allow other players to see which Pokémon are around our campus.
Of course, we did not want to position a human “friend” at the entrances of our buildings (remember it was summer break and students are hard to get hold of). Instead, we wanted an automatic way to get access to the related data so we can display live data from our different sites on request and possibly run further analysis on top of that data at a later stage.
We heard cries: “But that’s cheating”. Again, remember we are a University and economics and information sciences are among our departments. So the campus radar is a metaphor for customer or product tracking. Something no serious company today does without any technological support - besides we talk about a computer game. So technologically supported collaboration is as much cheating as human collaboration or placing in-game lure modules at poke stops to gain some competitive advantage. Yes, some call competitive advantage cheating - but in real life neither you nor your boss will care if it leads you to the winning side as long as you don’t rig “the game”.
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Implementing the Campus Radar
Unfortunately, Niantic provides no means for supporting metagaming. But with many other game that gain attraction there is a vibrant community that build tools and APIs that provide missing links to learn and better understand the games they like to play. One platform provided by this community was pokevision, which worked a bit like the traffic overlay for google maps for pokémons: it provided live information about where to find pokémons around the location of the site visitor.
Pokevision had an anonymous micro web-service that took a GPS coordinate and returned a list of pokémons around the coordinate. Even for non-players pokevision was interesting because it helped to visualise the game experience of this location-based game. This micro-service linked directly to the official game servers to load the relevant information.
We used pokevision’s micro service for collecting live data around our campus sites using a small collector app that periodically synchronised with the data provided by pokevision’s service. Out collector app stored the data about the pokémons in a simple database, so we could run “analytics” later on.
For the map on our web-page we implemented a new micro service that returned the data from our database. We chose this approach to minimize the load on pokevision’s infrastructure because we already collected game information for retrospective analysis.
It took us an evening and an afternoon session to stitch our campus radar together and then we started to promote our special web-page at our buildings. The most challenging task was to determine the inclusion radius and the reliability of the data we got. This is how we found out about the 800m radius. We also learned that pokevision was delivering live data from the official Pokémon Go servers, which were not running reliably. So at the beginning we were wondering about the reasons why we couldn’t see anything on our map. It took us a while to figure out that the Pokémon Go services were actually unavailable for several hours a day.
Promoting our activities
Our marketing team organised a large banner that has been placed at the entrances of our buildings. The banner held the only reference to our special Pokémon Go web-site. This allowed us to track the success of the campaign because normal visitors of our web-site could not reach the page via a normal link.
Failing to sustain the metagame
If you visit now our mobile web-page, you will find that our campus radar is not working anymore. The reason for this is a strange move by Niantic: Shortly after we started our metagame initiative, Niantic chose stepping forward against community services around the game. This has led to the immediate shut down of several community services, including pokevision. Given that there is still no official way for building and connecting metagames, this crossed our strategy. This move appeared odd, because metagaming has been part of Pokémon pretty much from the very beginning and the original brand has built a community around this concept. Therefore, I wondered that Pokémon Go discontinued that tradition.
So we continued with just announcing the lure modules via our special Pokémon Go web-page but keeping the map.
Despite that the metagame was available only for a very short time, we found that creating links between the location-based game and our activities had positive effects. The best indicator were the visits to our web-site from mobile devices. After we started the campaign the visits from mobiles on web-site doubled. All new visits were from our special Pokémon Go web-page. The conversion rate (users who did not immediately left the page) was approximately 2% for our special page. While this is worse than for the rest of our normal web-site, we account that the players went to the special page because of the game and not because they were interested in studying. Our web-statistics reports that within this group were no returning visitors, this means that the new visitors were previously unaware and/or uninterested of our online activities.
From the data we collected we can deduce a few things
- Any metagaming strategy for promotion purposes has to be multi layered and needs an impenetrable core that will work regardless of external conditions. We found that the web-site with the map worked pretty well for engaging players with our web-site, despite the failure of the radar function.
- Engaging players through meaningful references between their primary interest and our services helps to raise attention among and to build connections to players. In location-based games this is even more crucial because players are actually at our door steps, but not necessarily aware of their surroundings.
- Niantic was as surprised by their success as we were by the players on our campus. We deduce this from the fact that in the course of more than a week their servers were unavailable for several hours every day.
- Niantic was unprepared to support parties that had a physical presence at the game locations. We deduce this from the lack of support for metagaming and links to the real-word as well as from the aggressive behaviour against community driven micro-services that bridge that gap without providing any replacement themselves.
While implementing metagames you need to prepare for a bumpy ride. Not only that it is necessary to think of meaningful extensions to the actual gameplay, it is equally important to pay close attention to how the gaming company behaves. This is needed for figuring out their philosophy: It might very well be that the company is actually unaware of how their game actually interacts with the real world and/or is unable to embrace their enthusiastic community.